Word of the Day / Alte Zachen

A Yiddish phrase becomes a Middle Eastern fixture and a symbol of an unsung method of repurposing.

In a globalized world in which a young, green generation has only recently effected changes meant to better the environment and the health of the globe, Israel has been recycling for decades. I’m not talking about separating household garbage or carbon emissions limits. If you happen to see a horse-drawn cart schlepping old junk around the streets, you’re looking at an Israeli cultural phenomenon and an indigenous form of recycling: “Alte Zachen.”

“Alte Zachen,” means “old things” in Yiddish. Traditionally shouted by the driver of the aforementioned cart, it logically became the accepted Hebrew slang name of the means by which entrepreneurial junk collectors in Israel navigate city streets collecting residents’ garbage, including anything from appliances to clothing and furniture, ostensibly for resale, scrap metal or junking.

Ironically, many if not most of the junk dealers shouting “Alte Zachen” these days are Arabs. Some have upgraded by playing a recorded “Alte Zachen” message over a loudspeaker affixed to their cart or pickup truck.

Although the practice is European and predates Israel, the affected shouting is somehow nostalgic, familiar, uniquely Israeli and comforting, like the hollering of the fruit sellers of the Carmel Merket; it never fails to remind you that you’re in the Jewish Middle East. And, if you think about it, the practice of ”Alte Zachen” is an unsung method of repurposing that the most progressive green cities of the world could be proud to adopt. Who knew Israel has been leading the green revolution for years?

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

Tomer Appelbaum